5 Simple Steps To Keep The Bastards Honest

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So here we are. Not even a year into the first term of the Abbott Government, hot on the heels of the upheavals of the hung parliament and multiple ALP leadership stabbings, faced with widespread disillusionment with political leadership across the spectrum. 

There’s a small but solid push for an early return to the polls through a double dissolution, yet I have little faith that a further election will yield any real fruit for the Australian nation, whatever the outcome.

Australian democracy is clearly not serving its people.

Anyone who has tried to understand how politics works in Australia knows that it's daunting.

Most of us struggle to make sense of it all and, grudgingly or gratefully, consign our understanding to the tender mercies of those who govern, or take our cues from opinion columnists, journalists and political scientists.

This frees the rest of us up to get on with the challenging business of living our lives, making only a token gesture of citizenship every couple of years through the ballot box.

Our dearly held opinions are rarely challenged and more often than not simply identify us as members of a particular tribe, ready to face off against “the other lot” come the next election, barbeque or dinner party. 

Meanwhile, a political elite of warring parties, factions, commentators, influencers and lobbyists turn the wheels of state, and few of us truly appreciate the direction in which they are turning until a particularly nasty bump appears in the road.

But what if we all suddenly paid close attention to not just the latest news bite, but the entire system of governance?

What would we see if the clouds parted in one magical moment and the whole, sorry mess was made painfully clear?

I hope we might see that we are failing as citizens of a democracy. We have not made clear the type of nation we want to be and directed our representatives to take us there.

We might see that we have ceased to be a democracy at all – perhaps we never really were.

A democracy is ruled by its people, and we have been shirking our sovereign duties for far too long. Other have come to helpfully take that burden from our shoulders.

Apparently this is fine by us – but let's consider what would be required to provide everyone with the level of "political literacy" required to be "engaged citizens."

First: forget about everyone who's been through schooling. A lost cause, unless you’re committed to a lifetime of pointless, red wine-embued rantings around the dinner tables of the world, in which case: knock yourself out. 

Lambasting those less fabulously insightful than yourself is a valid medium of performance art and few will remember your abortive efforts at “killer points” in the morning.

While you sleep it off, foundational education on our system of government and media – Australian Politics 101 – needs to be provided to every primary and secondary student.

This way, they're capable of watching the game being played – and it is indeed a game – with decent understanding, and able to directly call the players to account.

Education is the key to a watchful, informed population. Our kids should be able to knock the current generation off its feet, point by point, in any political discussion by the time they reach 18.

Second: outlaw the party system. Parties occupy a similar space in the public imagination to football teams – very few concern themselves with the finer details when voting as a loyal supporter of "the Club." 

While political factions will forever endure, if everyone stands as an Independent then voters will be obliged to assess and elect their local candidates based on their specific credentials and policy platforms. Personal accountability is also much stronger this way.

Third: fund election campaigns for all nominated local candidates equally from taxpayer funds. Outlaw contributions from industry and private individuals.

To prevent the rise of billionaire politicians and the clout of their personal wealth, cap, govern and monitor campaign spending through the Australian Electoral Commission’s publicity department.

While wealth will always fuel the art of political persuasion, it should play no part in the mechanics of the electoral system.

Fourth: financially support and structure a system of true representation for sitting members. Too many career politicians appear to think they have achieved office because of their personal opinions rather than their ability to represent the views of their constituents. 

A representative's position needs to stack up, empirically, against voters' aspirations before anyone can start throwing around words like "mandate."

A democratic representative is a leader, but first and foremost must be a spokesperson and servant of the people.

Systems through which elected representatives can sustain consultation and engagement with their constituents, acting as an effective conduit between citizen aspiration and the pragmatics of government, need to be funded, standardised and canonised.

Approaches developed by specialist groups such as OurSay are cheap, effective and scalable. Use them.

Fifth, and finally: citizen conventions should establish a comprehensive, long-term vision for the nation’s future and commission an all-abilities, accessible road map to take us all there. Young kids should be able to read it, like the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph.

The various factions in Parliament can duke it out over the "how" but there should be little argument as to the destination.

Once in every generation – say, every 20 years or so – a fresh round of citizen conventions should start with a clean page.

In the time between, major changes to this vision should only be made through a national referendum.  The nation’s shared vision should be far less vulnerable to the petty concerns of ideological warfare and as fundamental to governance as its constitution.

No doubt this is all too much for those who begrudge giving up an hour on a Saturday every couple of years, but it is more palpably what a true democracy looks like.

As we are citizens of a democracy, at least in name, the confusion and aggravation of our current political reality is nobody's fault but our own.

We are responsible for this ideologically fractured mess. If we would like to continue to abdicate that responsibility to a political elite, then I suggest we call our system of government by its true name – an oligarchy – and continue to watch this self-perpetuating, purposeless machinery of state burn rubber up and down the street.

No complaints please.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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